Collaborating on Legal Documents Online

The courtroom can be a dogfight between plaintiff and defendant. In fact, it’s referred to as an adversarial system—two parties present their opposing sides to a judge or jury, who then decide the outcome. But the legal system in civil law is as much about collaboration as it is conflict.

Consider a contract or agreement that requires sign-off from four parties. Lawyer 1 creates the document on behalf of a client and sends it for review by Lawyer 2 and her client. Lawyer 2’s client insists on revisions. Lawyer 2 sends these revisions back to Lawyer 1. There is some back-and-forth over the wording. Eventually, the document is satisfactory to both clients.

At this point, Lawyers 3 and 4 come into the mix.

If you can get all the parties around a table to collaborate on the document, the process can be much faster, much less frustrating. But that’s not always possible, especially when parties are in different regions or even different countries. Online collaboration tools can serve as a substitute for that round table.

Using technology to collaborate on a document can be as simple as a Word document e-mailed back and forth, with changes tracked and commented (it even contains something of a negotiation history). But it’s asynchronous; it may save time over sending a physical document back and forth, but it doesn’t eliminate the iterative process.

With an online solution along the lines of Microsoft’s SharePoint, parties can collaborate in real time. It’s not the only solution, and, in fact, it’s not always the right one. But it does have some of the hallmarks of an appropriate collaboration platform.

* Its tools are familiar to users. Rare is the lawyer who is also an ace technologist (though I’m sure there are some). A good collaborative platform will be intuitive to the user. The fact that the SharePoint user interface looks eerily familiar to anyone who’s familiar with the Office suite (with which it’s tightly integrated) is an advantage.

* Its content management tools don’t just allow round-table collaboration. It can also serve as a digital records management platform. That helps maintain compliance with government and law body regulations.

* Its portal access can be both internal and external to the firm. Intranet access allows colleagues to collaborate within the company. Parties outside the firm can be invited to access documents through an extranet portal.

Security is, of course, paramount. We’re dealing with very sensitive and private negotiations and documentation. There are many pieces to the security puzzle in a collaborative environment.

* It’s important to be able to define what users have access to which applications, data and documents. One general approach to this is a role-based schema; depending on how the user’s role is defined, he or she has access to certain applications and documents. For example, an executive assistant might need access to the calendars of everyone working on a file in order to co-ordinate virtual meetings, but doesn’t need access to the documentation involved. Likewise, a researcher might need access to a particular datastore, but not need to know what the particulars of a project are. Access can be defined according to the role a user plays.

* On a more granular level, individuals may be granted access to a specific file exclusively. Others are only allowed to access the file on a permissions basis.

* Strong authentication protocols are also necessary. Picture our four-party agreement above. When it comes down to the wire, and the agreement has to be executed, with a strong enough authentication protocol, documents can be “signed” online by all parties without having to circulate hard-copy versions.

* Encryption of any shared documentation is critical. Documents and data are at risk more when they are at rest (on a server) than when they are in transit. Strong encryption is not an option; it’s a must-have.

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